From Publishers Weekly
Civil strife and natural disasters mark these nine unflinching stories set in upper Manhattan and the blighted countryside and atrophied capital of Peru. Callous government forces destroy a prison controlled by rioting inmates in the grimly poetic "Flood." In the "City of Clowns"—first published in the New Yorker—social protests crowd Lima, where "dying is the local sport," while narrator Oscar, a jaded young journalist, grapples with his father's death and with his father's second family, which includes other sons and a mistress who seems to be befriending his mother. A revolutionary, who, with his compañeros, worships "frivolous violence," prowls around looking for black dogs to slaughter in "Lima, Peru, July 28, 1979." His brief, almost tender interaction with a passing cop is a striking example of doomed connection. And an accidental explosion kills a well-educated guerrilla in a Peruvian jungle, leaving his infant daughter fatherless, in the affecting title story. Even the collection's warmest scene—a father gives his impish five-year-old a make-up kit for her birthday in "A Science for Being Alone"—is muffled by her and her mother's impending emigration to the United States. Though his vision often seems bleak, Alarcón's voice is fierce and assured, and his debut collection engages.
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Born in Peru and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Alarcon returned to Peru on a Fulbright and now evokes the sorrows and beauty of that ravaged land with a precision and steadiness that stand in inverse proportion to the magnitude of the losses he so powerfully dramatizes. Floods and earthquakes destroy what little equilibrium remains in a relentlessly violent world in which the authorities and the rebels are equally vicious and corrupt. In "Flood," a carnival of carnage erupts as floodwaters rise, and Alarcon's young narrator reports, "We were blind with happiness." In another tale, a young painter gives up his studies in Lima to join the revolution, but things get off to an ignoble start. In "City of Clowns," first published in the New Yorker, a reporter turns a casual assignment into a metaphysical experience. Keenly aware of how "life can disappear just like that," and cued to the fact that even as technology seems to erase barriers between cultures, it fails to foster genuine communication, Alarcon, gifted and perceptive, joins a new wave of incisive literary border-crossers that includes David Bezmozgis, Courtney Angela Brkic, Judy Budnitz, and Rattawut Lapcharoensap. Donna Seaman
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